A Destructive Process
Decomposition is the process by which organic matter — anything that was once alive — is broken down into its constituent parts through physical, chemical, or biological processes. When something decomposes, it experiences a chemical change and becomes a new substance. Materials may decompose through chemical and physical processes when exposed to things like heat, radiation, water, and other chemical compounds. The process by which microorganisms aid in the decomposition of organic matter is a specific form of decomposition referred to as biodegradation.
Aerobic Vs. Anaerobic Biological Decomposition
Aerobic processes occur in the presence of oxygen and release carbon dioxide (CO2) as a byproduct. Anaerobic processes occur in the absence of oxygen and release methane (CH4) as a byproduct. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is over 20 times more impactful than carbon dioxide.
How Fast Organic Materials Decompose
Rates of decomposition can vary wildly, from hours, to days, to decades, to thousands of years, depending upon the nature of the material, and the environment it is in. Temperature, light, moisture, pressure, presence of other materials, and compounds all affect rates of decomposition.
While inorganic materials are able to break down into smaller components, organic matter is the only material that actually decomposes. However, depending upon environmental conditions, organic matter could never decompose at all.
Individuals can reap the benefits of natural decomposition of waste via composting. In this process, organic waste material like food and yard trimmings are collected in one place. As the materials decompose, fertile soil and natural gas are produced, and can be utilized. Composting can be done at the home or commercial level.
Landfills and Decomposition
When organic matter ends up in a landfill, it gets buried under layers and layers of trash, cutting off the supply of oxygen. Under these conditions, these products will only be able to decompose anaerobically, releasing methane.
Some landfills are able to capture the methane and use it as an energy source. All organic matter in landfills represents a lost opportunity to create fertile soil via composting, but when organic matter winds up in landfills that cannot capture methane, it also becomes a contributing factor to climate change.
Inorganic materials that are sent to landfills may break down into small pieces, but they will never decompose. These same materials may have the potential to be successfully recycled and re-purposed when they are sent to proper disposal facilities.
Incentives for Recycling Properly
Consumers can always mitigate the impact of slowly or inefficiently decomposing waste by practicing reduce/re-use/recycle. Real financial incentives are now also available from a variety of sources. Community pay-as-you-throw trash programs offer savings in return for recycling. Rewards programs like the ones offered by Recyclebank reward participation in household recycling with points that translate into real savings for community and national brands.